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With Josey Jewell back, Iowa's veteran linebackers prepare for final games together

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Josey Jewell will be back in the middle of the Iowa defense Saturday.

Bo Bower and Ben Niemann will flank him as usual, a trio of senior linebackers who have combined to start 104 games.

This is their last stand together — five regular-season games remaining to try to salvage something memorable from what has been a disappointing autumn for the Hawkeyes (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten Conference).

As they go, the Iowa defense goes.

And when they’re gone next year? Well, no one is quite ready to contemplate that void.

“When you lose experience, it’s just different. For me being a senior, there’s things that you just know, compared to being younger,” Bower said Tuesday of the understudies at linebacker, none of whom have gained significant playing experience this season. “They’ll have to grow up fast.”

Iowa senior linebacker Josey Jewell makes a tackle in the second quarter against Illinois on Oct. 7. After missing the Northwestern game with a shoulder injury, Jewell is expected to return to his starting role Saturday against Minnesota, looking to add to his 371 career tackles, the eighth-most in Hawkeye history.

That is the conundrum for a college football team that needs to rely on its seniors to win while also trying to get ready to replace them in one offseason. Losing Jewell to graduation will be akin to losing a starting quarterback.

The Iowa linebacking corps has combined for 163 tackles this year, and that’s with Jewell missing Saturday’s loss at Northwestern because of an injured shoulder. That is nearly one-third of the team’s total tackles. Linebackers who aren’t seniors have been in on 15 tackles all year, almost all of them on special teams.

Jewell injured his shoulder in the Oct. 7 home win over Illinois, departing for a couple of series with junior Jack Hockaday taking his place. He returned in that game, but was held out of practices during Iowa’s subsequent bye week and was questionable leading up to the Northwestern game.

Finally, on Friday, team doctors delivered the bad news to Jewell. His 37-start streak was about to end.

“The thing we wanted to do was be smart and just try to talk to him about giving up one week to have the rest of the season as opposed to putting himself at risk,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

“(We) didn’t expect him to accept it or like it.”

Jewell, eighth all-time at Iowa with 371 career tackles, was in uniform and engaged throughout the game, helping guide Niemann through his first start at middle linebacker. Senior Kevin Ward, the Hawkeyes’ special-teams captain, took Niemann’s outside linebacker spot, coming up with four tackles in his starting debut.

Backups like Hockaday, junior Aaron Mends, sophomore Kristian Welch and redshirt freshman Nick Niemann (Ben’s younger brother) were not used at linebacker.

They may never be this season.

Jewell has been practicing at middle linebacker this week and Ferentz expects the Big Ten’s leading tackler (70) to start Saturday when Minnesota (4-3, 1-3) comes to Kinnick Stadium for a 5:30 p.m. kickoff on FS1.

“One nice thing about Josey, you pretty much know what to expect. He’s a really outstanding player and, every bit as important, just an outstanding leader on our team,” Ferentz said.

“It’ll be good to have him back in the huddle, and certainly it’s good to have him back on the field.”

Iowa's Ben Niemann chases down Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Friday, Nov. 25, 2016.

Niemann, who had 11 tackles Saturday filling in for Jewell, welcomed him back.

“He makes a big impact in almost every game he’s in,” Niemann said. In practices, Jewell has been “his usual self. Just how he was before, bringing energy, trying to kill people.”

Iowa has lost three Big Ten games by a total of 16 points. The defense has allowed 53 points in those three games.

Bower was adamant, though, that the defense hasn’t been up to par.

“We’re not playing well enough to win,” he said.

Added Niemann: “We only gave up 10 points in regulation (against Northwestern), yeah, but we can do more, we can play better.

“Our attitude isn’t that we’re playing good enough football, it’s that we have to get better.”

A healthy Jewell gives Iowa the best chance to do that. Bower and Niemann are his trusty sidekicks. For five more games, plus a potential bowl trip.

And then:

“The younger guys, coaches are making sure that they’re ready to play because they can go in anytime. They’re going to have to be ready to go,” Bower said. “There’s a lot of practice for them coming up before next season. There’s a lot of progress, so it will be fine.”

Defensive end Parker Hesse, a junior, also feels good about the future linebackers. He believes they’re soaking up knowledge even if fans don’t get to see it play out on the field.

“That’s also a testament to our seniors right now is the feedback they provide to those younger guys,” Hesse said. “They’ve been improving a lot. There’s a lot of those guys who are super eager to play. They’re physical guys and they like football. I think, what better way for them to learn than to see the seniors we have out there?

“The way these guys go about things is definitely encouraging in my eyes.”

You’ll have to take Hesse’s word for it, for now. It’s the senior linebackers who will play out this season. And they will play the largest role in determining how it ends.